Vaetchanan / Shabbat Nachamu

This week's parsha begins with Moshe telling the people how he pleaded to God to be allowed into the land but was denied. This was because of the incident in Parshat Chukat where the people were without water, God told Moshe to speak to the rock, and instead he yelled at the people and then hit the rock in anger (and water came out). Many reasons have been brought for what specifically he did wrong there, including denying God the miracle and becoming unhinged. Another possibility is that he chastised the people inappropriately, calling them rebels.

And now, in Vaetchanan, it seems pretty clear that Moshe blames the people for his not being allowed to enter the land. Not only does he blame them but he tells them he blames them -- on account of you, he says, God will not listen to my pleas. If Moshe ever had a chance to learn from this mistake, make teshuva, and reverse the decree, he blew it here.

There is a fine line between issuing blame and holding people accountable. When people do things that cause harm we should expect them to undo the damage. That's not blame; that's holding people to their obligations. When a coworker missed an important deadline last week that affected my ability to get my own work done on time, I think it was reasonable for me to press him to clean up some of the resulting mess. When I was involved in an accident years ago that was my fault, it was completely reasonable for the other driver to expect compensation. That's accountability, and it's an important principle. There's nothing wrong with this.

Blame is different. I can hold my coworker to what he was supposed to do, but I shouldn't send out email to the whole company dressing him down no matter how tempted I am and how justified I feel. The other driver can hold me accountable for damage but -- if there's no evidence I did it maliciously or recklessly -- shouldn't start a whispering campaign among my neighbors about what a bad person I am. Accountability is about the act; blame is about the person. We hold people to actions but we don't attack them personally.

Moshe fell into an easy trap; when we're angry we are often more focused on blame than accountability. Moshe blamed the people twice for God's judgement against him. He was angry and he let it show. God couldn't let that stand.

But I noticed something interesting in the text. When Moshe repeats God's decrees about crossing the Jordan it repeatedly says "ha-yarden ha-zeh" -- this Jordan. There's only one Jordan; what's that about?

I think it's a nechemta, a comfort, to Moshe. He can't cross the Jordan into the land now but this is not the only barrier he has faced or will face -- it's not his only Jordan, metaphorically speaking. He has been barred from this crossing, this Jordan, but God has not banished him completely. Even though he lashed out at the people and blamed them, which had consequences, he can return to God. That God takes his life personally, with a kiss, privately, instead of striking him down in front of the people, is I think a sign that Moshe and God are still on good terms even after all this.

This past week was Tisha b'Av, which marks the destruction of the temple. Tradition holds that both temples were destroyed on account of our people's sins. But on the heels of that, this week we begin seven weeks of comforting haftarot leading up to the high holy days. We have been punished, but we can also be comforted. As a people we didn't cross that Jordan, but we have other chances. As individuals we have surely been barred from some Jordans, but others are still available to us. The haftarot of consolation tell us that even though we've blown it, God will take us back and wants us to return.

As we make our journey through the coming weeks, may we be comforted with the knowledge that we have more chances, more Jordans, and return to God in love.